Sir Norman (Lord) Foster
(1935 - )
Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, Hong Kong
Commerzbank Tower, Frankfurt
Stansted Airport, Essex
In The Footsteps of Giants
No examination of British modernist architecture would be complete without reference to Sir Norman Foster, one of the world's most successful and highly regarded architects. With offices in London, Berlin, and Hong Kong, and a global staff of five hundred, Norman Foster is a genuinely international architect, and a household name.
In a thirty-five year career, he has won over 150 awards including Gold Medals from the RIBA and the American Institute of Architects, France's Grande Medaille d'Or, and the Pritzker Prize (the profession's 'Nobel Prize').
Norman Foster had an interest in architecture from an early age, but being from a working class background there was no guarantee that he would be able to pursue such a career.
Hard work in a variety of jobs (including a stint as a nightclub bouncer) enabled him to study architecture at Manchester University, where he won nearly every prize and scholarship going- many of which allowed him to travel and to visit the work of his heroes Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe.
On one such scholarship at Yale University in the US, Foster could count among his teachers Serge Chermayeff and James Stirling. Among his fellow students was Richard Rogers.
"Anything Is Possible"
One year after his return to Britain in 1962, Foster and Rogers joined forces to form Team 4. This collaboration would only last four years, but saw Foster begin to experiment with his favourite materials of steel and glass, producing early examples of 'high tech' architecture, like the Reliance Controls factory in Swindon in 1965.
After parting company with Richard Rogers in 1967, Norman and his wife Wendy set up Foster Associates, and began a productive collaboration with the eminent American inventor and philosopher, Buckminster Fuller. Fuller believed that humanity's problems could be solved through the relentless pursuit of technological progress.
The young Foster found him to be an inspiration, remarking "The thing about Bucky is that he made you believe anything is possible." Fuller's influence lives on: Foster's Swiss Reinsurance Building in London, on which work began in 1999, is a giant gherkin shaped glass tower which will include a series of 'skygardens', giving the building its own microclimate and eliminating the need for air conditioning, and is a concept which the two men had originally discussed in the 1970s.
The International Architect
And at the time of these discussions, Foster's star was rising. Through projects like 1975's Willis Faber & Dumas HQ in Ipswich (a curving glass-fronted building which incorporated an Olympic-sized swimming pool, restaurant and staff picnic area and was, according to Foster "a conscious effort to elevate the workplace"), and 1977's Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in East Anglia, he forged his now trademark mastery of light, space and technology, building breathtakingly modern and socially sensitive projects at a time when British architecture was still suffering the fallout from the collapse of Ronan Point.
In 1979, Foster won the competition to build the headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, now recognised as one of the great buildings of the twentieth century. Housing 3,500 workers, and soaring fifty storeys high, the Bank is specially designed to allow light to flood into its interior, and includes a landscaped space at its base which has become one of Hong Kong's most popular public spaces.
In the 1990s, Foster built the highest building in Europe (the Commerzbank Building), the world's biggest airport (Chep Lap Kok in Hong Kong, which is visible from space) as well as the critically acclaimed Stansted Airport outside London), and rebuilt Berlin's Reichstag, legislature of Europe's biggest democracy.
Foster's Modernism is not the bland modernism of the municipal council block, instead it is a grand, ambitious modernism, which seeks at every opportunity to harness technology to create ecologically sound, socially benign, and consistently spectacular architectural solutions to the problems of living, working, and travelling in a crowded world.
The revival of the heroic aims of the Modern Movement in the 1990s is due in no small part to the efforts of an architect who has consistently championed the cause of human and technological progress in his work.
Copyright & revisions
Originally published: Monday, 26th November 2001
Last updated on: Monday, 26th November 2001
- Body text - Copyright: The Open University
- Image 'Norman Foster' - Copyrighted: Used with permission
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